Heaney and Historical Continuity

Seamus Heaney, Irish poet, playwright and translator, was born on 13 April 1939 .

Widely recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
He died in 2013.

The Seed Cutters

They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.
They kneel under the hedge in a half circle
Behind a windbreak wind is breaking through.
They are the seed cutters. The tuck and frill
Of the leaf-sprout is on the seed potatoes
Buried under the straw. With time to kill
They are taking their time. Each sharp knife goes
Lazily halving each root that falls apart
In the palm of the hand: a milky gleam,
And, at the centre, a dark watermark.
O calendar customs! Under the broom
Yellowing over them, compose the frieze
With all of us there, our anonymities.

‘The Seed Cutters’ which was first published in 1975 is a Shakespearean sonnet that describes an old routine carried out in his Ulster farming community, the practice of seed cutting
The use of the sonnet form, the invocation of Pieter Bruegel and the “calendar customs” of the Irish peasantry, suggest the nostalgia for the past, seen as a simpler even golden) age.

In the first lines the speaker describes they uncomfortable activity of seed cutters work, who have to kneel on the ground in a sort of religious relationship with the land and cut seeds ( since the crop may be doubled by halving each seed). They are grouped in a half-circle, trying in vain to protect themselves from the wind, which makes their job much more difficult.
The activity they are engaged in has been going on for centuries. Therefore one could look back to the paintings of the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder who lived in the mid-1500s, and see men doing the same thing.
The seed sprouts they are cutting are all around them, “Buried under the straw.” They don’t rush to complete their job because there’s no reason to. The description of the movement of their knives, linked by means of enjambment. to the next quatrain, forces the reader to move forward to the following line in order to finish the sentence.
Heaney then describes the way these men “Lazily” and slowly cut “each root”, and how they “fall…apart” in their hands revealing the “milky gleam” of the split potato, contrasted with the “dark watermark” at its centre.

In the final image the speaker considers the part everyone has to play in the scene: at the top there are some spiky shrubs, broom, yellowing over these workers who look like a sculpted or painted frieze in which no one has their own individuality: they are all anonymous.

I tagliatori di semi

Sembrano lontani centinaia di anni. Bruegel,
li riconoscerai se riuscirò a renderli reali.
Si inginocchiano sotto la siepe a semicerchio
dietro un riparo che il vento sta sfondando.
Sono i tagliatori di semi. Il germoglio
venato è sulle patate da semina
sepolte sotto la paglia. Quasi fosse un passatempo
se la prendono con calma. Ogni coltello affilato va
dimezzando pigramente ogni radice che cade
nel palmo della mano: un barlume lattiginoso,
e, al centro, una filigrana scura.
O vecchia usanza stagionale! Sotto la ginestra
che vi ingiallisce sopra, si compone il fregio
con tutti noi lì, nel nostro anonimato.
(trad: L.Z.)

Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1565) – The Harvesters


45 thoughts on “Heaney and Historical Continuity

  1. A post about two experts in their own field, so to speak. I could look at Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings for ages, and I found out more about Seamus Heaney’s work in Bellaghy Bawn in Northern Ireland, which held a permanent exhibition of the local man’s work, but for some reason appears to be no longer there. Super post.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. Northern Ireland may not be on everybody’s list of ‘must see’ places’ but if you have an interest in places that are ‘under the radar’ I’m sure you’ll get a great deal from the experience. Let’s hope you get the opportunity Luisa.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post as always Luisa! As both a painter and a poet I love both of these artists. Although, I know little about Seamus Heaney, so thanks for sharing. I adore Bruegel’s works, especially love his infamous red paint. I keep saying I need to explore more of my Irish Poets, as I am more familiar with my Palestinian half. Cheers!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Luisa, your post is wonderful and informative. You blend brain and heart so wonderfully.
    The poem makes us feel the stillness of the life of the seedcutters and also the fatigue of their bodies.
    The potatoes becomes an object d’Art.
    And then the broom becoming the frieze. How good this is.

    Yes ur photos are so beautiful, thank you for the whole.


    Liked by 4 people

  4. Luisa, it is wonderful to link this poet and this poem to this painting especially because, according to the Metropolitan Museum, this is the first painting ever painted in the West on a subject that is secular and not religious.

    And yet this painting records activities which have a long tradition going backwards and forwards to this present day. Historical continuity, as you say, so dear to this poet.


    Liked by 2 people

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